Saturday, November 21, 2009

From harmony, from heav'nly harmony, this universal frame began.

Now pay attention. This diagram (click to enlarge) reveals the secret of life, the universe and everything. It appears in Marin Mersenne's Harmonie Universelle, volume 2 (1637). It depicts the great Lyre of the universe, governed by the divine Orpheus, who tunes all the parts of the world as he pleases. At the top right you can even see a divine hand emerging from a cloud and turning a tuning peg.

The diagram equates musical notes and intervals, on the right, with the planets and their orbits, on the left. It seeks to demonstrate that the universe is constructed according to musical principles, with the same fundamental ratios governing both. Whence the 'Music of the Spheres': the idea that the planets produce harmonious musical sounds in their movement.

Mersenne was inspired by the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who had finished his book Harmonice Mundi on this topic less than twenty years before. Kepler, in turn, was influenced by the lutenist and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei, father of Galileo Galilei.

There's an interesting article about Kepler by Andrew Brown on the Guardian website.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wild Barley

In 1596, William Barley published three books of tablature, one each for the lute, orpharion and bandora. They are among the very few printed sources of English solo lute music.

In the introduction to the orpharion book, he explains that the pieces for lute can also be played on the 'stately Orpharion', and vice versa. But since the orpharion is strung with wire strings, and the lute with gut, the orpharion requires a 'more gentle & drawing' stroke than the lute. The right hand must be easily drawn over the strings, and not 'suddenly gripped or sharply stroken as the lute is', otherwise the wire strings will clash together and make a nasty sound.

He's very insistent on this, and repeats: "sudden and sharpe as the Lute is alwaies stroken." Today, we tend to think of the lute as a gentle, sweet-sounding instrument. Perhaps we're wrong?

The sincerest form of flattery

More from Adrian Le Roy's A briefe and plaine Instruction, published in London in 1574. I love these pictures, which show how to test a lute string before putting it onto the instrument. The good string appears to divide into two when it's plucked, the bad string looks all fuzzy. Note the lovingly-drawn detail: the dainty ruff at the end of the sleeves, the hank of string-gut hanging down on the right, the curly end of the string on the left. (Click the picture to see a large version).

Someone else who clearly liked the picture was Marin Mersenne, author of Harmonie Universelle, a music theory book published in Paris in 1636 and weighing in at an impressive 1,600 pages. Here's his illustration of the same thing:

Definitely a family resemblance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Por la gracia de dios

This splendid picture is from El Maestro, the book of music for vihuela by Luis Milan published in Valencia in 1536. It shows Orpheus playing his vihuela, and charming the birds and beasts. There's a city on fire in the top right of the picture.

The text around the frame reads:

El grande Orpheo / primero inventor
Por quien la vihuela / paresce en el mundo
Si el fue primero / no fue sin segundo
Pues dios es de todos / de todo hazedor.

The great Orpheus, first inventor
Through whom the vihuela appeared in the world
If he was the first, he was not without a second [?]
Since God is creator of everyone and everything.

Ruggiero Chiesa reproduces this image in his edition of El Maestro (Milan, 1974). Strangely, though, the text isn't quite the same. The last line now reads:

Porque es de todos / de todo hazedor.
Since he is creator of everyone and everything.

God has been excised. Worse, this text makes it look as though Orpheus is being credited with being the great creator. Some mistake, surely.

Howard Mayer Brown (Instrumental Music printed before 1600) also gives the Godless text. I would guess that this was printed first, that someone noticed, and insisted it was changed.

The introduction to the recent facsimile edition by the Sociedad de la Vihuela (Córdoba, 2008) lists thirteen surviving copies of the book, but doesn't draw attention to the changed text or suggest that there was any more than a single edition. Quite a mystery.

You'll find a facsimile of the book (with God) on line at the Spanish Biblioteca Nacional.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Bet you haven't seen one of these before. The cittern is normally a modest little four-course instrument, remarkably similar to a 16th century ukelele. But this monster has fourteen courses, the result of an unwise match between a cittern and a Italian chitarrone four times its size. It's the cover illustration from Thomas Robinson's New Citharen Lessons, published in London in 1609. He called his book "the sweetest Cornell of my conceited Cithering" and optimistically described the new instrument as "most fulle, sweete and easie".

In fact, most pieces in the book are for the old-fashioned four-course cittern, and there's just half a dozen pieces at the end for the big fellow. There's some satisfyingly big six- and seven-note chords, but the extra bass strings are disappointingly sparingly used. An opportunity missed.

Cittern music looks rather scary to lute players. The chords require apparently impossible stretches; but the instrument is much smaller so (I guess...) they can be reached. And the music routinely goes much higher up the fingerboard than lute music: up to fret q (the 15th fret) on occasion.

Robinson wasn't the only English lutenist to stray onto the cittern. Antony Holborne published The Cittharn Schoole in 1597. In the dedication, he calls the instrument 'this little Wanton' and the book 'my silly Citharn Schoole'. Clearly a man with a healthy sense of the ridiculous.

Role model

Now, that is one hell of a
  • big lute
  • hat
  • playing posture
  • set of leg muscles
  • costume
  • beard
  • scowl
Thanks to Adrian Le Roy (1574) for the picture.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tarnished reputations

After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland's compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his cotemporaries, which has been courteously continued to him, either by the indolence or ignorance of those who have had occasion to speak of him, and who took it for granted that his title to fame, as a profound musician, was well founded.

Actually, that's not me speaking. It's Dr. Charles Burney in his General History of Music, published in 1789.

After demolishing Dowland he continues with Ferrabosco:

I have my doubts likewise concerning the genius, at least, of the second FERRABOSCO, who had the Poets and Dilettanti all on his side; but whose works, that have come under my inspection, seem wholly unworthy of a great professor... [He] published Ayres, with an accompaniment for the lute, in London, 1609, which contain as little merit of any kind as I have ever seen in productions to which the name of a master of established reputation is prefixed...

Burney is fair in his criticism and includes four pages of music by these composers so that readers can judge for themselves. He annotates the Dowland and comments that "The places in Dowland's second composition marked with a +, will be not be found very grateful to nice ears". Expressive augmented triads: absolutely not allowed. As for Ferrabosco, "the musical critic in the following plates shall have it in his power to discover such beauties in them as may have escaped my observation." Ouch.

Interestingly, neither transcription contains any lute music. To illustrate Dowland, Burney has chosen two Lamentations by Dowland, for 4 and 5 voices, published by Leighton in 1614, and little known today. In the original source (illustrated above) the 4-voice piece is a consort song, with tablature parts for lute, bandora and cittern which Burney has suppressed. His transcription of a Ferrabosco air reduces the tablature lute part to a figured bass, eliminating much of the detail. Possibly, with his emphasis on strict counterpoint as the mark of a good composer, Burney was simply unable to come to terms with the greater fluidity of polyphonic writing on the lute. Or possibly the closed world of tablature discouraged him, as it has so many others.